It is my pleasure and privilege to release the much anticipated report of the Committee for the Review of the Provision of Student Housing in South African Universities.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the media, after my appointment as Minister of Higher Education and Training in 2009, I visited a number of institutions as part of my orientation with the portfolio. During these visits it was glaringly apparent that student housing is a major problem in our public university system and that something needed to be done urgently. The conditions of some of the student residences both off and on-campus left much to be desired and this can in part explain why there has been so much unhappiness related to accommodation in many campuses.
Further exacerbating the problem has been a lack of supply of adequate and affordable student housing offered by universities, which in turn forced students to rent sub-standard accommodation off campus. In some cases the living conditions, both on and off campus, were not conducive for academic studying, thus having a detrimental impact on the success and throughput rates of students at universities.
The lack of sufficient and adequate on-campus housing has resulted in overcrowding, thereby jeopardising students' academic endeavours and creating significant health and safety risks for them.
From 2005 to 2010, universities reported a total of 39 incidents of student housing-related protests of varying intensity and scope, several of which were sparked by dissatisfaction with residence maintenance and facilities. Most of the protests were in historically black institutions. There were similar protests in 2011 and also in recent weeks there have been a handful of student protests linked to the desire for affordable and academically conducive student residences.
In 2010 I appointed Professor Ihron Rensburg, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg to lead a committee whose purpose was to assess the current provision of student accommodation, and benchmark the South African universities against each other as well as against international institutions operating in a similar environment. Furthermore, the Committee had to determine the real need and assess the various models of provision of student housing, the various types of housing that can be provided and the potential funding models which may assist in alleviating the problem.
The Committee was further required to ensure that the provision thereof does not in turn detrimentally affect the operating budgets of the universities in future.
Prof Rensburg completed this task in September 2011 and presented a report to the Ministry. I am only releasing the report now because it would not have benefitted the universities to merely state the obvious and present the report without the Ministry coming up with a plan of action about how the challenges in the report would be addressed. As a result, I will also share with you how the Ministry aims to address the key challenges identified in the report.
The report does indeed confirm that there are major backlogs in the provision of student accommodation, and that in some instances students are living in appalling conditions. Many of the institutions have not been able to make sufficient investments in maintaining their infrastructure, and far too few students can actually be accommodated.
It is clear that massive investments are required to address the backlog that currently exists. Student enrolment in the residential university system for 2010 was 535 433 and is expected to grow at a rate of over 2% (our academic enrolment target for the cycle 2011 to 2013 suggests an average growth of 2, 8%).
The number of beds available at residential universities in 2010 totalled 107 598, or 20% of the total contact student enrolment. This means that 80% of contact students in 2010 could not be accommodated in the residences owned by our public universities. By way of example, it takes a student that resides at home in Mamelodi and travels to and from either the University of the Witwatersrand or the University of Johannesburg, between 3-4 hours a day to attend classes using public transport.
The estimated distance between Mamelodi and Johannesburg is only 82 kilometres apart. It's no coincidence that many students experiencing these conditions, especially at first year, fail to cope with the demands of academia given the time spent commuting. While it is clear that every student cannot be accommodated at university residences, research evidence suggests that being housed in a safe, well-managed residence does advantage students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds as they do not have to spend hours commuting to and from the university. Affordable student accommodation allows these students to focus their energy on their academic endeavours, thereby improving their chances of success.
Nationally, the racial demographic profile of students provided with accommodation in universities is close to that of the national demographic profile of the country. As might be expected, there are more female than male students accommodated (55% of females are accommodated in student residences). Most disconcerting though is that only 5.3% of first year students, those arguably in greatest need of accommodation, are in residences.
The department will be encouraging universities to ensure that preference is given to first year students so that they can be supported in their academic endeavours. It is easier to develop special programmes for academic support when you know where students reside.
Of particular concern also is the severe shortage of accommodation for students with disabilities, as well as the big differences in what facilities are provided at different institutions. Some campuses have no residences suitable for students who require wheelchair accessible buildings, rooms and bathroom facilities.
Even more disturbing was the discovery that many students at our institutions actually go hungry. Only 41% of campuses have dining halls, of which 40% are self-catering and 19% have both options. The Committee found that some students go for days without a meal, and sadly, this was found to be a particularly serious problem among first year students, including even those with bursaries.
I am deeply concerned about this state of affairs. Students need to have access to, and funding for, proper meals. Hunger and poor nutrition are believed to affect attendance, concentration levels during lectures and ultimately, academic performance which in turn leads to high drop-out rates. Hungry students cannot be expected to fare well academically.
I want to appeal to all Vice-Chancellors to ensure that students in their residences have access to, and funding for, proper meals. For those who prefer to prepare their own food, then residences should have proper kitchenettes. The proposed minimum standards in the report provide guidelines on proper meals and catering facilities to ensure that students eat properly.
Current provisioning and condition of Student Housing
There are at least 554 student residences/ housing complexes, including 93 dining hall facilities, serving the 49 campuses of the 22 universities. A quarter of all residential infrastructure at universities is unsatisfactory or in poor condition. Students in some residences are using bathrooms as kitchens, since there are no kitchen facilities. Around a quarter of all infrastructure, fixtures, fittings and dining hall facilities are assessed by the universities concerned to be in an unsatisfactory or poor condition.
The value of the current national maintenance and refurbishment backlog is R2.5 billion. Furthermore, if the existing residence stock is to be modernised to render the residences ‘fit-for-purpose', then a further R1.9 billion is required. This means that only taking care of the current backlog without adding any new infrastructure will require R4.4 billion as at September 2011.
Backlogs in the system and cost to address the backlog
The average cost to build and provide a single bed is estimated at R240 000 at 2010 prices. This cost includes all the necessary standard fittings and furniture, kitchenette and social space that a student accommodation is expected to have. It should be noted that the actual cost differs considerably from one institution to the next depending on the location of the institution and whether the institution has its own land for development or not.
It is estimated that the 2010 residence bed shortage was approximately 195 815, and this grows yearly with the expansion of the system. The estimated shortage in 2013 will be 207 800 beds. These estimates are premised on the provision of residence accommodation for 80% of full time contact student enrolments on campuses where off-campus accommodation is unsuitable and/or unavailable especially in rural universities and for 50% of full time contact student enrolments on campuses where limited off-campus accommodation is both available and suitable.
The cost of overcoming this shortage over a period of ten years is estimated at R147.37 billion over fifteen years, including escalation for building and increased intake growing at an average of 2% per annum.
Role of the private sector
The private sector is a significant contributor and stakeholder in the provision of accommodation to university students in South Africa, as is the case internationally. Leaving aside those students who live at home or in their own accommodation, it is estimated that the number of student beds currently made available by both small and large scale private providers in South Africa is close to 10% of the total full-time contact enrolment at universities in 2010.
However, the study indicates that the provision of private student accommodation is unregulated in South Africa, allowing widespread exploitation of students and exposure of students to various types and levels of risk. As a result, we also need to be very careful about the role of the private sector as it does come with risks of exploitation, especially if left unregulated.
The report makes key recommendations in eight areas:
- residence admissions and allocations policy
- minimum standards for student housing and accommodation
- private student housing and accommodation
- residence management and administration
- role of residences in the academic project
- financing of student housing and funding of student accommodation
- condition of residence infrastructure
- future planning.
However, this amount is not enough to address the backlogs in the system. To augment the funding above, the department is currently in discussions with the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) about setting up a special fund for university accommodation. It is anticipated that the fund will be operational in the next 3-4 months and will offer preferential rates to universities. However, institutions do not have to wait for the legal establishment of the fund, but can start applying immediately for student housing loans.
The department is also planning a workshop with all universities to work through the recommendations of the report and to specifically take forward the guidelines on minimum standards for student accommodation and finalise these for implementation across the system.
We urge universities to engage with the report and start implementing the recommendations at the institutional level while national policies and guidelines are being finalised.
Let me take this opportunity to thank Professor Rensburg and the team that supported him for the excellent report which will assist the Ministry and the Department in addressing the housing needs of students at our institutions through different interventions and initiatives.
Issued by the Department of Higher Education and Training, February 29 2012